Politics » Politics Feature

POLITICS: On the Eve



In the last week of the various pre-election campaigns, Shelby County Republicans drew a visit from a dignitary whose name wasn't on the August 3rd ballot but may well be again in, say, 2008, when presidential primaries are held in various states, including Tennessee.

This was Bill Frist, the outgoing majority leader of the U.S. Senate, whose seat is up for grabs this year and has been hotly contested by Republicans Bob Corker, Ed Bryant, and Van Hilleary and by Democrat Harold Ford Jr.

Before going to the Oaksedge grounds in East Memphis for an "Ice Cream Social" sponsored by the local GOP, Frist sat down at the Wilson Air Terminal for an exclusive interview with The Flyer to discuss his current situation and future plans. Here are excerpts:

Flyer: Do you see your possible presidential race as being conflicted between conse4rvative and moderate positions, or between those wings of the Republican Party?

Frist: We will see. I'm convinced that the party, including the nominating groups, are going to be focused on who can lead with principle, and that ultimately will be what distinguishes me in my service as a United States senator and if I decide to run for president of the United States.

And I think leading with principle is what has characterized me both as majority leader as well as being in the Senate itself -- whether it's on issues like the judges and a commitment to use their "nuclear option" if it came to that, to leading on Medicare, to entitlement-type reform issues, which traditionally Republicans don't do, or stands on stem cells where the principle of ethics has an interplay with science. Those are so crystal clear in my mind.   

And so we'll see. But I think that leading on principle will be what the Republican caucuses will be attracted to, and partly because the times are challenging as we go ahead whether it's how you address entitlements in terms of  their impact on the deficit or on the debt - all driven by health care.

Issues like the Islamic movement that we see today which will so color our generation. I feel pretty good about that. I think my leadership style has been very different compared to previous leaders by a willingness to take certain risks in certain areas based on principle and acting on those principles.

The left didn't like your position on the Terri Schiavo issue, and the right didn't like your position on stem cells. Does that present a political problem?

Yeah, but I think that each of the issues, whether it's HIV/AIDS, whether it's reform of entitlements, whether it's Schiavo, whether it is stem cells, whether it is tax cuts, [there's]  a consistent principle. You look at stem cells. I did exactly what I said I was going to do six years ago...before the president came out, and that's right where I am right now. That's what people want. I'm a citizen/legislator. I said I was going to serve 12 years, and I'm not like most politicians who get in it and stay forever and say I didn't really mean it. I do what I say, and that's what people want.

How do you think you'll do in the early primaries?

Well, again, this is all hypothetical,  if I decide to run, but I think in particular  New Hampshire and Iowa, those two states look right in somebody's eyes and see the person, and then they make a judgment. Most people understand [that], being  majority leader, my responsibility is, unlike other senators, to lead that upper legislative branch, the United States Senate. That's what I get elected to do. And  particularly the 55 Repubvlicans, where I act and take into consideration those broad range of views in a way that gathers the strength and the leadership and minimizes the weaknesses of that group.

Places like Iowa and New Hampshire are very sophisticated in that regard. And they basically want to know what makes the person tick. Is it a person of principle? Is it a person who's got the appropriate experience and the heart and soul to lead the country?

Has being majority leader become an impediment to your campaign for the presidency?

Well, my goal in life has never been to be president of the United States. It's just not what's driven me. That's not why, you know, I got into politics 12 years ago when you and I met. And it hasn't been, in being in the United States Senate.  And I think, being majority leader, people toss your name out a lot more, because you've risen to the top of the United States Senate, which is an interesting group of people and a separate branch of government.

Putting that another way: Regardless of your intentions, has being majority leader, a very partisan position, become a possible handicap to running for president?

You know, it's hard to say. You don't see majority leaders become president. You don't see United States senators become president. To have the opportunity to serve the country and lead in the capacity of majority leader which is the highest elected position in the legislative branch of the government. Branch of the govt. when one' motivation is not to be president, you certainly wouldn't - or I certainly wouldn't have become majority leader when my colleagues came to me to do something that really hadn't been my goal in life.


Thoughts on the ongoing Middle Eastern crises - Iraq and Lebanon?

With the current events, with the terrorist activity that's going on right now in Israel and along that southern Lebanese border, with the rise of Hizbollah, a terrorist organization that is threatening the sovereignty of Israel, I think people are getting a much better understanding that the war on terror is not just a war on terror, it's a war against a radical Islamic fascism that is not just in Afghanistan, is not just in Iraq, is not just in Lebanon, not just in Syria, not just in Iran but throughout that entire region.

And the importance of us recognizing that surrender is not a solution and that retreat is not an option when we have this growing, burgeoning entity whose purpose is to take down the West, whose purpose is to destroy your future and the future of all Americans. Specifically in Iraq we  should stay and do exactly what we're doing now. We need to train the Iraqi forces

We need to continue supporting that now sovereign government, with the the full resources and the full moral might of the United States of America. We need to continue to focus attention on Iran, which is at this point in time an even greater threat to the United States  because of its commitment to nuclear proliferation. And then most acutely and most recently we 're going to need to focus increasing attention on the northern Israel,/Southern Lebanon border.


Some worry that we've given a blank check to Israel. Do you agree?

No, we just passed a resolution on the floor of the Senate last week that condemned Hizbollah and supported Israel's right as a sovereign state to defend itself, and so I don't believe so. We have a long-standing relationship with Israel as an ally, and we will support them as an ally, and if their sovereignty is being threatened and being attacked, they need to defend themselves, and we will continue as we would with any ally.  We have many, many allies, not just Israel.

How have you kept up with the medical side of your life?

I read the New Eng Journal of Med every week. I talk to medical scientists and colleagues on a regular basis every week. I have not done a heart transplant in 12 years. I have done surgery. I do surgery every year for a couple of weeks in Africa. I really keep up on the public health arena, things like HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and I underestand and participate in active discussions, of policy discussions of how we address that. Issues like clean water. 1.2 billion people don't have access to clean water. Half of all the hospital beds in the world are being occupied right now because of the disease related to not having clean water. Those are the sorts of issues that people are not adequately addressing today that I would consider addressing, all related to health and medicine and health care.

Could you perform a transplant operation tomorrow if you had to?


(A briefer version of this  interview was published in the Flyer print edition of August 3.)

Front Porch Politics: "Money can't buy you love," said the Beatles a generation ago. In a striking demonstration of commitment to the cause of "clean money and clean elections," a goodly-sized crowd gathered Sunday in the front yard of District 29 state Senate candidate Steve Haley to hear him and two other speakers - Democracy for Memphis activist Brad Watkins and state Representative John DeBerry (see "Viewpoint," p. TK) - insist that money can't buy you good government, either.

In an obvious reference to a highly public campaign or two going on just now, the stem-winding DeBerry commented,  "Thousands upon captive thousands of dollars are being pumped into Memphis and Shelby County to tell us that people we've never heard from before are better than those that we know."

In his remarks, Haley stood on his literally planked platform and unveiled political planks like strong handgun legislation, an end to regressive taxation, a further strengthening of predatory lending law, and, most importantly, publicly financed elections. "Clean money and clean elections," said Haley. "That's why we're here. That's the centerpiece of my campaign."

Some 80,000 Shelby Countians availed themselves of early voting. Logging campaigning time at the Agricenter location were (l to r) Linda Russell (wife of Circuit Court Judge James Russell); Criminal Court Judge Mark Ward; and Chancellor Arnold Goldin.
  • Some 80,000 Shelby Countians availed themselves of early voting. Logging campaigning time at the Agricenter location were (l to r) Linda Russell (wife of Circuit Court Judge James Russell); Criminal Court Judge Mark Ward; and Chancellor Arnold Goldin.

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